One of the most popular songs played at funerals is, you will not be surprised to hear, ‘My Way’, that self-aggrandizing hymn of defiance, associated with and immortalised by Frank Sinatra. It never fails to raise a collective wry smile among the grieving on hearing that the normally retiring Mr Albert Thwaite did it his way. Leaving aside the thorny question of what his way was, it’s usually pretty clear that Mr Thwaite did not. Do it his way I mean. A life of kowtowing to some nameless council boss was not what Sinatra had in mind. So unless you count that unfortunate episode with the karaoke machine Ethel hired for cousin Gladys’s 21st birthday, Albert did not do it his way. And many who heard his treatment of the aforementioned song that day, fuelled by two glasses of Tesco Amontillado, are still reluctant to talk about it.
Albert’s rendering of the song that day remains etched in the memory of any who heard it. Not everyone recognised the song, so idiosyncratic was the performance. Many who did never thought of it the same way again. Somehow Albert managed to condense the anger of a lifetime of servitude into three minutes of jawdropping catharsis. In some ways that is what the song is about. Just not Albert’s apparently arbitrary and wandering choice of key and tempo. Listeners stared at their shoes as the song ended. After several seconds of tumbleweed, Ethel broke the embarrassed silence with a single handclap and invitation to guests to address the buffet.
Albert was buried in an old dark suit, it’s lining long since given over to moths. Nobody mentioned the song.
Least said this, thought Ethel.
Howard Hughes can legitimately claim to have done ‘it’ his way. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs the same. Their lights burn bright, their greatness unequivocal, their single-mindedness unassailable. Men who genuinely did do things their way. But what of the millions in between Albert and Bill, Steve or Howard?
Tomorrow I shall attend the funeral of a friend, a clinical anaesthetist and one of my former PhD students. Neither Albert Thwaite nor Howard Hughes. I’ve been asked to say a few words about the person I knew all those years ago. Others too from different parcels of his life. And above all it has made me aware of how compartmentalised our lives are. The messages of remembrance each provide another piece in the jigsaw. I can only speak of the time I knew Guy. He was a gentle man and a gentleman. The product of his upbringing and strong parental models. He was an only child and in many ways a private man. But at the same time he was gregarious and entertaining. Larger-than-life if you will. Not many knew that he enjoyed heavy rock music and among his final acts was the choice of music for his own funeral. Logically this would be the point where I draw the strands together and say that ‘My Way’ was among the choices.
Mercifully it wasn’t.
He chose ‘The Chain’ by Fleetwood Mac, reflecting his love of Grand Prix racing (the instrumental solo in the middle of the song associated forever with TV coverage of racing) and, little-known by others, the fact that he played the bass guitar himself.
Mr Blue Sky was another perfect choice. Patients loved him. His bedside manner was calm and encouraging, reassuring anxious patients, soothing jangled nerves of the preoperative patients. In many ways he was Mr Blue Sky.
And the final song? Growing up on the south coast, with its chalk scarps and green fields, it could only be one – White Cliffs of Dover sung of course by Vera Lynn. The perfect choice.
Guy would never have claimed to have done it ‘My Way’. He would have snorted at the absurdity. Guy knew, better than most, that life throws spanners into the best laid plans. He knew that life was about doing the best you could, where you could and how you could. He accepted no grand design, no masterplan from on high, just the simple pleasure of knowing that he had done his best. It wasn’t necessarily his way or anybody else’s. It was just the way. And that’s all that mattered.